YOU WOULDN'T EXPECT one of Portland's wildest performance artists to sing the praises of reality television. But in the world of Kaj-anne Pepper, nothing is predictable.
"I thought I was gonna hate RuPaul's Drag Race, but I love it," he says. "It makes drag queens look cool, because they're on TV. It brings an awareness and a popularity to the craft and the hard work that goes into it."
After several years of genderfucking with Rose City audiences, Pepper, 25, is diversifying his repertoire by collaborating with local choreographers Linda Austin and Tahni Holt. This fall he'll co-direct Ordo Virtutum, a 12th century morality play by German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. It's all a far cry from his days with Sissyboy, Portland's infamous "shock drag" troupe that performed in bars before he was even old enough to legally drink booze.
"I would just walk in," Pepper says. "People don't question a 5' 4" drag queen with a giant pink mullet and a hand knife."
RuPaul isn't the only pop culture figure on his mind. Last month Pepper was crowned "Miss Thing" at a competition where he presented an homage to Lady Gaga—albeit with mixed feelings.
"It's really important for that kind of creativity to get injected into the mainstream," Pepper says. "What bothers me is that it's becoming commodified. It's the process in which culture steals from queers and trannies and faggots, and then we have to take it right back."
Drag kings Max Voltage, 28, and Jodi Bon Jodi, 32, are also doing their part to provide a platform for outspoken performers. They formed Pants-Off Productions (pantsoffpdx.com) to present wildly diverse monthly talent contests. So far, the shows have attracted Spandex-clad ribbon dancers, a dyke fisting a watermelon, and a musician playing an accordion while singing, "Do you take it in the ass?"
Next up for Pants-Off is the second annual Homo's Got Talent, a campy dance-off competition featuring a panel of "celebrity judges," on July 31 at the Jupiter Hotel. Once again, blame it on the phenomenon of reality television.
"So You Think You Can Dance is one of my favorite shows," Voltage admits. "I'm really excited to see pop culture psyched about dance."
Jenny Hoyston is trying a different approach to shaking up the scene. After moving here from San Francisco a couple of years ago, the visual artist/musician (of Erase Errata fame) was surprised at the "one-dimensional" nature of most queer events. She soon joined forces with fellow multi-hyphenate Sarah Faith Gottesdiener (the Gay Deceivers) to curate gatherings where experimental musicians, visual artists, and performance artists could commingle.
"We would like to normalize being queer in the art world and not be ghettoized," says Hoyston, 37.
Their next event, Menz Room, will feature CJ and the Dolls and other gender-bending performers on Friday, June 18, at Rotture. Although it's been challenging, Hoyston hopes the parties continue to draw a diverse crowd.
"Portland has surprised me how segregated it is between queer and straight and between gay men and lesbians," she says. "There's a huge queer family here, and I don't think they want to hear 'We Are Family' every night."
That's precisely where Airick Heater comes into the picture. He's the mastermind behind Blow Pony (blowpony.com), an infamous monthly bacchanal created as an antidote to the "shallow and boring and repetitive" music heard at most gay bars. At Blow Pony, you're more likely to find a tattooed transguy dancing to Dolly Parton than a buff gym rat posturing to Cher.
"I made it a point to make sure that this party would be open to everybody," says Heater, 41. "It's not an agenda, but it's about more than getting trashed. It's about liberating yourself and your sexuality."